Students fight for free speech on University of Houston campus
HOUSTON – What’s a politically correct university campus to do when seeking to deter freedom of speech on campus? Tell those who dare to trespass on campus orthodoxy they must pay special fees for security guards at their events, fees other groups don’t have to pay.
That’s what happened to the Pro-Life Cougars, a University of Houston student group named after the school mascot. The Pro-Life Cougars sought permission to hold two events on campus: Concert for Life on March 20 and 21, and an event featuring Norma McCorvey on April 4, 2001. McCorvey, now a pro-life advocate, is the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade notoriety.
The university told the student group it would have to pay $25 an hour for security guards needed to police the events, because, as one official told a student, "some events are more violent than others." Other groups are not charged this fee for their events. Being pro-life was the only distinguishing feature of the Pro-Life Cougar events.
Faced with fighting back or surrendering to unequal, unconstitutional treatment by the university, the Pro-Life Cougars turned to the Alliance Defense Fund Law Center. The center promised to file a federal civil rights lawsuit if the university refused to abide the Constitution and court precedent, both of which protect the rights of students in similar free speech cases. The university backed down. In the end, it withdrew its effort to charge special fees for pro-life speech.
"Speech is speech, fair’s fair, and one student group has the same right to free speech as the other student groups," said Benjamin W. Bull, chief counsel for the center. "It’s fortunate that the unpopular student group knew where to look for help. If they hadn’t, they would have been at the mercy of ‘politically’ correct university officials that would like to impose special fees on pro-life speech. The university clearly knew better, which explains why it backed down so quickly."
But the university hasn’t seen the light on other speech issues.
Last fall the Pro-Life Cougars sought permission to put up a display in a public space at the University of Houston used by such organizations as the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood. The university said no to the pro-life exhibit and the group had to file a lawsuit in January.
The Cougars have asked for a preliminary injunction against the university that would allow them to use Butler Plaza. Despite claiming to have a commitment to free speech, the university is fighting to keep the pro-life exhibit away from the main part of the campus used by other student groups.
"Because of the other groups that have used the space on Butler Plaza, it’s clear that the issue for the university is approval of politically correct speech. The First Amendment is intended to protect unpopular speech – even pro-life speech – because popular speech doesn't have to be protected," said Bull.
Attorneys for the Pro-Life Cougars last week filed for a preliminary injunction that would allow the students to erect their display, called "Justice For All Exhibit," immediately.